Outcomes Assessment and Grades

February 16, 2009

A couple of recent articles in Inside Higher Ed caught our eye – one on grades and grade inflation, and the other on the creation of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

It seems obvious to us that grading and assessment are largely the same thing. Barring sampling programs, or initiatives designed to assess program outcomes (aggregating student results rather than considering the success of individuals), grading IS assessment.

It’s just that the typical grade (A-, B+ etc.) is an extraordinarily blunt instrument.

Imagine reading a car review (okay, bad example – who is reading car reviews anymore?) or a film review that is simply a letter grade. Many reviews feature letter grades, but they come after a thousand words of measured criticism. And it is subjective criticism, but we largely accept the skill of a Roger Ebert and take their points seriously. They are assessing the film, and they do it through a narrative response built upon well-established criteria.

Education is even messier than film reviewing, because the letter grades awarded are all over the place. To draw the analogy out a little farther, imagine trying to pick a movie to see from the following:

  • 20 films, all rated B+ or higher (with no narrative or other information)
  • 20 films, each rated four times by separate reviewers, where the individual grades are all over the map but the averages are still B+ or higher

You wouldn’t know which film to see…and likewise our system of letter grades is useless for assessing knowledge. Read the rest of this entry »